Boris gets off the bus

As a bold act of redistribution it is hard to beat. Oh, hang on . . .

Boris Johnson will see out New Year's Eve 2009 convinced that he has made it as cheap as possible. London's official fireworks display, which under the "profligate" Ken Livingstone regime lasted ten whole minutes, will be reduced to a mere seven and a half minutes.

Free rail travel will be scrapped, and Boris will enter 2010 having scrimped several hundred thousand pounds off the mayor's budget.

This is all part of Boris's drive to "ease the burden" of City Hall on taxpayers. However, as Boris counts his pennies, the rest of the capital will wake to the largest set of multimillion-pound fare rises brought in by a London mayor.

Boris will increase single bus fares by 20 per cent, with "hard-pressed families" paying hundreds of pounds more a year. And while the average household has saved just 11p a week from Boris's tax freeze, Boris will take hundreds of millions of pounds extra in fare revenue during his term.

These rises will help close the financial black hole created by the removal of the western extension of the congestion charge, but will also go towards much-needed improvements to the Underground. They will also help fund initiatives such as his bike hire scheme.

But while some of the extra burden may be necessary, it is how Boris has chosen to share the burden that is most revealing.

Boris will protect those Londoners most able to pay by freezing the price of almost all season tickets for the year. Meanwhile, he will raise single bus fares by a third from the level he inherited. Overall, bus users will be hit hardest by the rises.

As a bold act of redistribution, it is hard to beat, with Boris asking those least able to pay to subsidise those most able to pay.

This is reportedly a worry for the Conservative leadership: David Cameron's aides are quoted as saying that Boris is "making us look bad". But although Cameron is keen not to scare off voters before an election, Boris is merely doing what most Conservatives would have expected him to do once in power.

Ken Livingstone famously had a policy of shifting people out of their own vehicles and on to public transport. For a self-proclaimed cycle- and car-loving libertarian, this was always going to be anathema.

To shift the balance, Boris plans to raise fares, halve the size of the congestion charge zone, reduce the level of bus subsidy and pour millions into making London the "electric car capital of the world".

Whether masses of Londoners will ever follow Boris's electric dreams remains to be seen.

But while the mayor can easily afford to take part in his "electric car revolution", for most Londoners the real revolution will be an ever-increasing burden from Boris in fares.

Adam Bienkov is a blogger and journalist covering London politics and the mayoralty.

 

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

Adam Bienkov is a blogger and journalist covering London politics and the Mayoralty. He blogs mostly at AdamBienkov.com

Getty
Show Hide image

The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.